Friedman and Bruni

November 26, 2014

In “News Drumsticks” The Moustache of Wisdom offers us all some suggestions for what to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner.  Mr. Bruni ponders “When Italians Meet Turkey” and says their Thanksgiving menu tends to sprawl. But then so do their feelings.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Thanksgiving is a time for dinner-table conversation. If you’re short of news drumsticks to chew on, here are a few you may have missed.

For starters, it’s true the world would be safer if we got a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program. But if the Iranians and their Arab neighbors don’t protect and preserve their environments, Mother Nature is going to finish them all off long before they get to each other. Read Chandran Nair’s essay in The International New York Times on Nov. 10 from Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city: “The major artery that ran through the city was the Zayanderud River, a thoroughfare that nourished some of the earliest civilizations in recorded history and sustained the people of Isfahan down through modern times. But for two years the river has been bone dry. It’s not that its banks have receded; they simply aren’t there anymore. In their place is a desertified riverbed. … Wells have dried up and ecosystems have been destroyed.”

The crisis was produced by a prolonged on-again-off-again drought, dating to 1999, and populist, undisciplined water subsidies by the ayatollahs, trying to win support from industry, farmers and the poor. The doubling of Iran’s population in the last 40 years compounded the problem. But Iran’s rulers are afraid to cut back now for fear of triggering populist anger. Iran will soon need a lot of nuclear power — to desalinate water.

Speaking of population, it was a hot topic at the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week — the U.N.’s startling new population data. According to a Sept. 18 article in Science magazine, “Analysis of these data reveals that, contrary to previous literature, the world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. There is an 80 percent probability that world population, now 7.2 billion people, will increase to between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion in 2100. … Much of the increase is expected to happen in Africa, in part due to higher fertility rates and a recent slowdown in the pace of fertility decline.”

We just added a couple billion more people to the planet this century! If the ecosystems and forests that provide us with clean water and clean air are stressed with 7.2 billion people here, what happens at 12.3 billion? Pass me some wine with that drumstick.

You may have missed this one, too: The Times of Israel reported on Oct. 24 that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, decried “what he sees as an epidemic of anti-Arab racism,” telling a group of Israeli academics, “Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease.”

Actually, Rivlin speaking out is a sign of health. So was an essay by Shabtai Shavit, the former chief of the Mossad, in Haaretz on Monday, saying: “I am truly concerned about the future of the Zionist project. I am concerned about the critical mass of the threats against us on the one hand, and the government’s blindness and political and strategic paralysis on the other. … I am concerned that for the first time, I am seeing haughtiness and arrogance, together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. … This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of ‘the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations’ (Numbers 23:9).” Shavit said Israel should launch a peace effort, based on the Arab peace initiative, which calls for full peace for full withdrawal.

The same day, Ori Nir, who covered the Palestinians for Haaretz, wrote his own brutally honest essay, which said: “The Palestinians don’t have a national figure with [President] Rivlin’s integrity. I wish they did, because their society, too, is very sick, indeed, and could use Rivlinesque self-criticism.” One only needs to read the praise that Hamas, the Jordanian Parliament and Arab commentators heaped on the two Palestinians who murdered four Jews at prayer in a West Jerusalem synagogue to know just how sick their society is, and one only needs to study the continuing flow of young Muslim men to the Islamic State, or listen to the hate-mongering of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who declared Israel guilty of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler” — to know this whole region needs a shrink.

Nir put it well: “Without leaders who inspire hope for a future of peace, young Israelis and Palestinians have lost the ability to dream, to envision a different reality. … I know that even if the occupation ended tomorrow, healing will take many years. But healing will only be possible once the two societies separate, so they can mind their own illnesses. We must let the healing begin.”

Finally, Ferguson, Mo., reminds us of our own wounds of mistrust we need to heal. The controversial verdict was announced the same day President Obama awarded this year’s Presidential Medals of Freedom, which also reminded us that we’ve been a work in progress in repairing our racial divide. Among those honored were the three civil rights workers killed in the Freedom Summer of 1964. Another was Charlie Sifford, a black golfer who helped desegregate the P.G.A. Tour and pave the way for Tiger Woods. And another was Stevie Wonder, who, as Obama put it, “channeled his inner visions into messages of hope and healing.”

That should be plenty to talk about.

And there’s nothing quite like discussing politics at dinner to make for a happy occasion…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Thanksgiving Day is almost upon us, and I haven’t yet summoned the nerve to tell Uncle Mario and Aunt Carolyn, who host it, that I may not arrive until a quarter past noon. That’ll make me more than an hour late, which by my rough arithmetic translates into 12 chilled shrimp, 15 mozzarella balls, four meatballs, a medium-size plate of stuffed mushrooms and a sizable wedge of frittata.

That’s an unthinkable magnitude of forgiveness to ask for.

The Bruni family has a schedule, you see. A pace. It’s like a forced march, only a catered one, with prosciutto. We get going at 11 a.m. because we have no other choice if we’re to cram in all the necessary appetizers — and what I’ve described above isn’t even half of them — before we sit down to the main meal. It must commence by 1:30 p.m., lest we fail to do the dessert buffet at 3:15, the spread of sandwiches at 5:30 and the return of the dessert buffet at 6:45.

“Buffet” doesn’t really cover it. “Burlesque” comes closer. To wit: My sister is making three pumpkin pies, and she’s one of maybe 10 guests bearing sweets. Aunt Vicki is baking another six pies — three apple and three pecan — to complement the cookies, brownies, cupcakes, cakes and tubs of ice cream that various other relatives contribute. We’re something like 40 people this year, but still. This could feed 400.

Italian-Americans are a gluttonous tribe, and when we look at the calendar, we don’t see big moments and small ones, peaks and valleys. We see occasions to eat a lot and occasions to eat even more than that.

And Thanksgiving, with its focus on food and its veneration of plenty, is the ultimate occasion, the utmost license, our culinary id unbound. It’s when we’re released from our paddocks, ovoid thoroughbreds allowed to hit full stride.

One year I hobbled myself. I was trying hard to diet, and I actually showed up and murmured something about steering clear of carbohydrates, just this once. You could have heard a chicken cutlet drop. Cousins gaped. Nieces had tears in their eyes. Aunt Carolyn grabbed the edge of the turkey platter to steady herself.

I’d cursed in the temple, and my penance was clear. I had two helpings of stuffing, along with a bulbous buttered yam.

That’s a lie. I had helpings of two different kinds of stuffing. It’s a hallmark of Bruni Thanksgivings that there’s never just one of anything: no single vegetable, no solitary starch, no gargantuan turkey carrying the whole protein load.

There’s usually an equally mammoth ham in the mix. There’s stuffing from inside the bird as well as stuffing from outside. One casserole of sweet potatoes has marshmallow on top; the other dispenses with that sugary hood. Someone might like a particular version best, so it must be there, along with the yams, and each alternative must exist in a quantity that would be sufficient if everyone decided at the last minute to eat it and only it.

And pasta must appear at some point. We’re Italian. We have a duty.

Every so often there’s a suggestion that we cut back. This goes over about as well as my forswearing of carbohydrates did. Here’s the problem: Aunt Carolyn eliminates the mozzarella balls and someone invariably asks, “Where are the mozzarella balls?” She exiles the stuffed mushrooms and someone desperately canvasses every room and every table surface for them, as if searching for a lost kitten. She ditches the yams and someone goes into a yam funk.

A yam funk won’t do. It’s Thanksgiving! So she serves everything that she did on previous years and maybe, to amuse herself, something additional, which she’s then committed to serving forevermore.

There were Thanksgivings past when I considered all of this absurdly wasteful, outrageously unhealthful, even obscene. I saw us as a parody of ourselves, a plump cartoon.

Now I just smile gratefully and chew. The cartoon’s meaning comes into ever sharper focus. It’s less about gluttony than about generosity. The calories are proxies for something else.

Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Mario spread out everything that they do so that there can be no doubt about how much they treasure us. The rest of us bring everything that we do so that there can be no doubt about how much we treasure them.

We Italian-Americans exalt food because we Italian-Americans exalt family. They’re intertwined. Indistinguishable.

The day’s final image is always the same: Aunt Carolyn back in the kitchen, drained and triumphant, filling elaborate doggie bags so that each of us totes away enough white meat, dark meat, pasta, stuffing, corn, peas, pie and cookies to restage the meal at home a few times. If the eating doesn’t stop, the togetherness never ends.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

Bobo just bursting to tell us all about “The Unifying Leader.”  He squeals that the only way for American political culture to change is for leaders to be more creative in their approach to collaboration.  In the comments “Susan Anderson” from Boston had this to say:  “Blame the victim much? You are better than this. Time to notice that your party is willing to sacrifice the whole country to condemn Obama, who did indeed make an effort to meet your party somewhere a long way towards your end of things. Even that wasn’t good enough for your move-the-goalposts party of selfishness, sociopathy, greed, and wealth, and against dealing with reality in a way that does not exploit to the detriment of not only us, but you and your descendants.”  Well, Susan, he did say that he wasn’t going to apportion blame.  I guess he knew where all the fingers would point…  Mr. Cohen says “Keep Pushing for an Iran Deal,” and that if you don’t like the idea of America at war with Islamic State and with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Iran, double down on diplomacy.  In “Committed to Carbon Goals” Mr. Nocera says the chief executive of NRG Energy is making his company part of the solution.  Now, alas, here’s Bobo:

Over the past two weeks, President Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.

When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.

Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.

Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.

Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policy-making teams as each initiative was executed.

Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.

Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policy-making process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.

Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.

So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.

Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mind-set. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.

Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.

The collaborative leader is willing to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. Trust is built when one leader is vulnerable to another and the opposing leader doesn’t take advantage of it to enhance his own power. Then that opposing leader is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.

Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).

We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.

You’ll notice that the name John Boehner appears nowhere in that piece of crap.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wrote last May that “unreasonable optimism” surrounded nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Unreasonable pessimism should not surround the failure to reach an overall agreement and the decision to extend negotiations for seven months. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, believed 70 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict was psychological. The same has been true of the American-Iranian confrontation at the heart of the standoff between Tehran and the West. A barrier has fallen through well over a year of discussions; a 35-year-old trauma has receded.

This immense achievement does not in itself assure success. Plenty of people want enmity preserved. Here are seven questions for the next seven months that may prove helpful:

Why is a deal still by far the best option? Because the alternatives are a continuation of the relentless buildup of Iranian nuclear capacity seen over the past decade or yet another American war in the Middle East that would do little to dent the program, lock in hard-liners for a generation and likely prompt an Iranian dash for a bomb, setting off a regional arms race. If you like the idea of the United States at war with the Sunni killers of Islamic State and at war with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Shiite Iran, this scenario may hold appeal. If it looks like a nightmare, double down on diplomacy.

But doesn’t the extension of talks favor Iran? No. The interim agreement announced last year has proved effective. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Today, it has none. The number of operational centrifuges has been frozen. International inspections have been redoubled. Not for a decade had the pause button been hit in this way. Yes, Iran has received some sanctions relief, bringing in about $700 million a month, but that scarcely offsets plunging oil revenue.

Why is Israel’s call for complete dismantlement not the way to go? Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

What are the main dangers now to the negotiations? The Republican Congress, hard-liners in Tehran around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to undermine the talks. When the new Congress convenes next year, it may push for new sanctions. There will be talk of “appeasement,” the cheap Chamberlain riff that is a favorite sound bite of naysayers. A sanctions push would be extremely foolish. It would constitute a potential talks-breaker that may prod President Obama into a veto. This would in turn reinforce Washington chatter about “an imperial presidency.” To which Obama should respond that he’s less interested in chatter than the history books.

But isn’t Iran America’s enemy? Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah. It supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its operatives have killed or plotted to kill Americans since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially in the early years. But Iran also has overlapping interests with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relative island of stability in a violent Middle East. Its young population is overwhelmingly pro-American. Most of them place Israel at the bottom of their list of priorities. The United States does business with plenty of strategic adversaries, including Russia. The Middle East is stymied. Even a cold American-Iranian understanding could redraw the map of the region.

President Hassan Rouhani seems reasonable but doesn’t Khamenei call the shots? The supreme leader and the president need each other. The Iranian economy is a shambles. Khamenei needs Rouhani to fix it. Rouhani needs Khamenei as a shield from the toughest hard-liners. The West will never find better interlocutors than Rouhani and Zarif.

Are there other reasons to favor an accord? Yes. Iran is the last sizable emerging market economy not integrated in the global economy. Integrating it will provide a huge boost. The more contact there is between Iran and the West, the more moderating forces will be reinforced.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.

This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.

NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter. “We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants. “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”

But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, on Thursday, as The Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.

Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously. “To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.” But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers like NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.

One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 scotched those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”

So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming up with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon will eventually be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement. “We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal.”

He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers. The day is going to come, he believes, when climate change risk will be something investors factor in to their investment decisions. And he believes that the next generation of consumers will demand clean energy. He views the disinvestment campaign now taking place on college campuses as a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone. “We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Blow and Krugman

November 24, 2014

In “Bigger Than Immigration” Mr. Blow says that for conservatives, this debate is really about the fear of seeing traditional power slip away.  Prof. Krugman, in “Rock Bottom Economics,” says it’s amazing and depressing that we’ve spent six years at the big zero.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds. Don’t allow yourself to believe that opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is only about that issue, the president’s tactics, or his lack of obsequiousness to his detractors.

This hostility and animosity toward this president is, in fact, larger than this president. This is about systems of power and the power of symbols. Particularly, it is about preserving traditional power and destroying emerging symbols that threaten that power. This president is simply the embodiment of the threat, as far as his detractors are concerned, whether they are willing or able to articulate it as such.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week found that the public “wants immigration policy along the lines of what President Barack Obama seeks but is skeptical of the executive action.” When The Journal looked at some of the people who “say they want to see a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — which is beyond what Mr. Obama’s executive order would do — but say they disapprove of presidential executive action,” it found that the group was “overwhelmingly white and more likely to be Republican than not” and some said that they simply “don’t like anything associated with the president.”

Pay attention to the overall response from all sources, particularly the rhetoric in which it is wrapped.

Speaker John Boehner has accused Obama of acting like a “king” and an “emperor.” Representative Louie Gohmert referred to Obama’s “ new royal amnesty decree.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, in National Review, went further, suggesting that Obama’s legal justification was a slippery slope to all manner of crime and vice:

“Can the president make fraud and theft legal? How about assault? Cocaine use? Perjury? You’d have to conclude he can — and that we have supplanted the Constitution with a monarchy — if you buy President Obama’s warped notion of prosecutorial discretion.”

There is no denying the insinuations in such language: a fear of subjugation by people like this president, an “other” person, predisposed to lawlessness.

As usual, issue-oriented opposition overlaps with a historical undercurrent, one desperate for demonstration (of liberal folly) and preservation (of conservative principles and traditional power).

From this worldview, liberalism isn’t simply an alternate political sensibility, but a rot, an irreparable ruination, a violation of the laws of the land as the founding fathers (most of whom owned slaves at some point) envisioned, but also of the laws of nature, which they see as being directed by God. There are so many examples of this: opposition to L.G.B.T. rights, to the science undergirding climate change and efforts to arrest that change, and to allowing women a full range of reproductive options.

Maybe that’s why the president cited Scripture when laying out his immigration plan: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

But that is surely to have fallen on deaf ears, if not hostile ones. Conservatives slammed the usage, and Mike Huckabee went so far as to accuse the president of trying to rewrite the Bible while bizarrely invoking the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations:

“I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is president, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby’s Wikipedia entry.”

How dare the president — seen by some as a threat to Christianity — invoke Christianity in his defense!

As Paul Ryan put it in 2012, the president’s policies put us on a “dangerous path,” one that “grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”

Senator Tom Coburn upped the rhetoric last week, suggesting to USA Today that there could be a violent reaction to the president’s actions:

“You’re going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy.”

He added, “You could see violence.”

This is not completely unlike the language used by Joni Ernst, just elected senator in Iowa, who spoke during a 2012 N.R.A. event of her gun and the “right to defend myself,” possibly “from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about this president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Six years ago the Federal Reserve hit rock bottom. It had been cutting the federal funds rate, the interest rate it uses to steer the economy, more or less frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to get ahead of the recession and financial crisis. But it eventually reached the point where it could cut no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero. On Dec. 16, 2008, the Fed set its interest target between 0 and 0.25 percent, where it remains to this day.

The fact that we’ve spent six years at the so-called zero lower bound is amazing and depressing. What’s even more amazing and depressing, if you ask me, is how slow our economic discourse has been to catch up with the new reality. Everything changes when the economy is at rock bottom — or, to use the term of art, in a liquidity trap (don’t ask). But for the longest time, nobody with the power to shape policy would believe it.

What do I mean by saying that everything changes? As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.

This may all sound wild and radical, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s what mainstream economic analysis says will happen once interest rates hit zero. And it’s also what history tells us. If you paid attention to the lessons of post-bubble Japan, or for that matter the U.S. economy in the 1930s, you were more or less ready for the looking-glass world of economic policy we’ve lived in since 2008.

But as I said, nobody would believe it. By and large, policy makers and Very Serious People in general went with gut feelings rather than careful economic analysis. Yes, they sometimes found credentialed economists to back their positions, but they used these economists the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. And what the guts of these serious people have told them, year after year, is to fear — and do — exactly the wrong things.

Thus we were told again and again that budget deficits were our most pressing economic problem, that interest rates would soar any day now unless we imposed harsh fiscal austerity. I could have told you that this was foolish, and in fact I did, and sure enough, the predicted interest rate spike never happened — but demands that we cut government spending now, now, now have cost millions of jobs and deeply damaged our infrastructure.

We were also told repeatedly that printing money — not what the Fed was actually doing, but never mind — would lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” The Fed, to its credit, stood up to this pressure, but other central banks didn’t. The European Central Bank, in particular, raised rates in 2011 to head off a nonexistent inflationary threat. It eventually reversed course but has never gotten things back on track. At this point European inflation is far below the official target of 2 percent, and the Continent is flirting with outright deflation.

But are these bad calls just water under the bridge? Isn’t the era of rock-bottom economics just about over? Don’t count on it.

It’s true that with the U.S. unemployment rate dropping, most analysts expect the Fed to raise interest rates sometime next year. But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Europe looks further than ever from economic liftoff, while Japan is still struggling to escape from deflation. Oh, and China, which is starting to remind some of us of Japan in the late 1980s, could join the rock-bottom club sooner than you think.

So the counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.

This bodes ill for the future. What people in power don’t know, or worse what they think they know but isn’t so, can very definitely hurt us.

Krugman’s blog, 11/22/14

November 23, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “The Wisdom of Peter Schiff:”

No, seriously. Well, sort of. Danny Vinik sends us to the latest from Schiff, who made a big splash in 2008-2009 predicting runaway inflation if not hyperinflation; he was a favorite of Glenn Beck’s.

And in his new piece Schiff lays out the analytical issue very clearly:

Mainstream economists (who hold sway in government, the corporate world, and academia) argued that as long as the labor market remained slack, inflation would not catch fire. My fellow Austrian economists and I loudly voiced the minority viewpoint that money printing is always inflationary-in fact, that it is the very definition of inflation.

The truth is that high levels of unemployment are historically correlated with higher inflation and low levels of unemployment with lower inflation. That is because an economy that more fully utilizes labor resources is more productive. More production brings down prices. In contrast, an economy that does not fully employ its citizens is less productive, and its government is more prone to pursue misguided inflationary policies to stimulate the economy.

OK, leave aside the business about defining money-printing as inflation; guys, nobody cares. But what Schiff says very clearly is that according to his worldview, rolling the printing presses should cause inflation (by the normal definition) even in a depressed economy, and that high unemployment should in fact make inflation higher, not lower.

He has that exactly right: the central dispute is between those who see depressions as the result of inadequate demand, implying that inflation will fall and that printing money does nothing unless it boosts employment, and those who see depressions as the result of maladapation of resources or something — anyway, something on the supply side — who predict that running the printing presses will lead to runaway inflation.

How could you test those rival views? Why, how about having a huge slump, to which central banks respond with aggressive monetary expansion? And that is, of course, the test we’ve just run. And everywhere you look, inflation is low, verging on deflation.

So we’ve just run the Schiff test — and his brand of economics, by his own criteria, loses with flying colors. And that goes for just about all anti-Keynesian doctrines: we ran as close to a clean experiment as you’re ever going to get, and the answer is no.

Now, just about everyone on that side insists that it’s not true, that sinister bureaucrats are smuggling away the inflation evidence and burying it in Area 51. That tells you a lot about who we’re dealing with. But at least Schiff states the issue clearly before refusing to admit error.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Bruni

November 23, 2014

MoDo is off today.  In “The Making of an Imperial President” The Putz thinks he can explain to us how Barack Obama ended up embracing the executive overreach he once campaigned against.  In the comments “Look Ahead” from WA had this to say:  “Maybe the assertion of executive authority has something to do with the headless horseman called Congress since it was TP’d in 2010. Dashing from pointless investigations to useless repeal votes to shutdowns, the Congress has abandoned responsibility and role, leaving the President to act on climate change and other pressing global issues.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Sydney, Australia.  He has a question in “Stampeding Black Elephants:”  What happens when some 6,000 park rangers, scientists, environmentalists and others gather to brainstorm how to guard and expand the earth’s protected areas?  Mr. Bruni looks at “Promiscuous College Come-Ons” and says the hucksterism of schools makes it harder for students to navigate the admissions process with any sanity and real success.  Here’s The Putz:

Let me be clear, as he likes to say: I believe that President Obama was entirely sincere when he ran for president as a fierce critic of the imperial executive. I believe that he was in earnest when he told supporters in 2008 that America’s “biggest problems” involved “George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” I believe he meant it when he cast himself as a principled civil libertarian, when he pledged to defer to Congress on war powers, when he promised to abjure privileges Bush had claimed.

I also believe he was sincere when he told audiences, again and again across his presidency, that a sweeping unilateral move like the one just made on immigration would betray the norms of constitutional government.

So how did we get from there to here? How did the man who was supposed to tame the imperial presidency become, in certain ways, more imperial than his predecessor?

The scope of Obama’s moves can be debated, but that basic imperial reality is clear. Even as he has maintained much of the Bush-era national security architecture, this president has been more willing to launch military operations without congressional approval; more willing to trade in assassination and deal death even to American citizens; and more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistle-blowers and journalists.

At the same time, he has been much more aggressive than Bush in his use of executive power to pursue major domestic policy goals — on education, climate change, health care and now most sweepingly on immigration.

Three forces — two external, one internal — might help explain how this transformation happened.

First, public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured. And so the modern president, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written, is increasingly seen as “a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.”

And pressure on this talisman to act, even in violation of laws or norms or Burkean traditions, is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.

Second, congressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.

This reality has made it harder to cut major bipartisan deals; it’s made it harder to solve problems that crop up within existing law; it’s made it harder for the president to count votes on foreign policy. All of which creates more incentives for presidential unilateralism: In some cases, it seems required to keep the wheels turning; in others, it can be justified as the only way to get the Big Things done.

Which bring us to the third factor in the president’s transformation: his own ambitions. While running for president, Obama famously praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America” in a way that Bill Clinton’s triangulation did not. And it’s his self-image as the liberal Reagan, I suspect, that’s made it psychologically impossible for this president to accept the limits that his two predecessors eventually accepted on their own policy-making ability.

That transformative self-image has shaped his presidency from the beginning: Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted — as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)

But the liberal Reagan idea has shaped his choices more as it’s become clear that certain major liberal priorities — a big climate-change bill, a comprehensive amnesty — are as out of legislative reach as health care reform proved for Clinton and Social Security reform for Bush. Confronted with those realities, Clinton pivoted and Bush basically gave up. But Obama can’t accept either option, because both seem like betrayals of his promise, his destiny, his image of himself.

And so he has chosen to betray himself in a different way, by becoming the very thing that he once campaigned against: an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound.

Yeah, Putzy.  I’m just waiting for the massive torch-lit rallies.  I guess they’ll start any day now…  Schmuck.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I participated in the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and learned a new phrase: “a black elephant.” A black elephant, explained the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.

“Currently,” said Sweidan, “there are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.” We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.

No, this is not an eco-doom column. This one has a happy ending — sort of. The International Union for Conservation of Nature holds the parks congress roughly every 10 years to draw attention to the 209,000 protected areas, which cover 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 3.4 percent of the oceans, according to the I.U.C.N.

I could have gone to the Brisbane G-20 summit meeting, but I thought this was more important — and interesting. A hall full of park exhibits and park rangers from America, Africa and Russia, along with a rainbow of indigenous peoples, scientists and environmentalists from across the globe — some 6,000 — focused on one goal: guarding and expanding protected areas, which are the most powerful tools we have to restrain the environmental black elephants. How so?

It starts with a simple fact: Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, recreation, stable temperatures and natural coastal protections “that sustain us humans,” said Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading primatologists who was here.

That’s why “conservation is self-preservation,” says Adrian Steirn, the South Africa-based photographer who spoke here. Every dollar we invest in protecting natural systems earns or saves multiple dollars back. Ask the people of São Paulo, Brazil. They deforested hillsides, destroyed their watersheds, and now that they’re in prolonged drought, they’re running out of water, losing thousands of jobs a month. Watch that story.

Walking around the exhibit halls here, I was hit with the reality that what we call “parks” are really the heart, lungs, and circulatory systems of the world — and they’re all endangered.

Onodelgerekh Batkhuu, the director of the Mongol Ecology Center, stops me to explain that Lake Hovsgol National Park in Mongolia, which holds 70 percent of the surface freshwater of Mongolia — 2 percent of the world’s freshwater — and is the headwaters for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater that is in Lake Baikal in Siberia, is now under huge pressure from hoteliers. “How do we get them to understand that the value of that lake staying pristine is more valuable than any hotels?” she asks.

John Gross, an ecologist with the U.S. National Park Service, who has worked in Yellowstone for 20 years, uses a NASA simulation to show me how the average temperature in Yellowstone has been rising and the impact this is having on the snowpack, which is now melting earlier each spring, meaning more water loss through evaporation and rapid runoff, lengthening the fire season. But, hey, it’s just a park, right?

People forget: Yellowstone National Park is “the major source of water for both the Yellowstone and the Snake Rivers,” said Gross. “Millions of people” — farmers, ranchers and communities — “need those two rivers.” Yellowstone’s snowpack is their water tower, and its forest their water filters. Its integrity really matters. What happens in Yellowstone, doesn’t stay in Yellowstone.

Via Skype, I got to interview the heroic Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of his rangers were killed last week — bringing the total to 140 rangers killed since the park was founded — protecting the park from antiregime rebels, marauding bands poaching wildlife or fronting for oil prospectors. “No park in Africa has this diversity of species,” said de Merode, who has been shot several times.

But, again, this isn’t just an outdoor zoo. With just a little investment, explains de Merode, the park’s rivers could provide 100 megawatts of electricity from hydropower, as well as fisheries, eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture that would create thousands of jobs for the poor communities on its border. Indeed, if the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo is ever to be stabilized, it will likely start from Virunga. “You have a core of Congolese [park] rangers who have maintained their work when every other institution [in the country] has broken down,” he said. Virunga has “become an island of stability.” This is a park holding up a country, not the other way around.

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s former minister of environment and energy and now a vice president of Conservation International, explains to me the politics of parks — and the difference between countries that have their forest service under the minister of agriculture and those where the forest service is under the minister of environment or independent. Agriculture ministers see natural forests and parks “as timber that should be chopped down for something ‘productive,’ like soybeans, cattle or oil palm,” said Rodríguez. Forest services and environment ministers “see their forests as carbon stocks, biodiversity reservoirs, water factories, food production plants, climate adaptation machines and tourism sites,” and protect them.

Guess who’s in the first group? Honduras and Guatemala, where many people live on degraded hillsides. Some 50,000 children have been sent from Central America to the U.S. this year — unaccompanied. Where did they come from? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America’s most deforested states. They cut their forests; we got their kids.

I promised you good news — sort of. It’s how many people are now focusing on the economic and national security value of their ecosystems. But the power that financiers and corrupt politicians still hold in setting the limits on what we can and cannot destroy in nature — as opposed to the scientists and biologists — remains the bad news. As Adam Sweidan put it, in too many places we’ve still got “the vampires in charge of the blood banks.” It has to stop, not so we “save the planet.” The planet will always be here. This is about us.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Between the last application season and the current one, Swarthmore College, a school nationally renowned for its academic rigor, changed the requirements for students vying to be admitted into its next freshman class.

It made filling out the proper forms easier.

A year ago, applicants were asked to write two 500-word essays as supplements to the standard one that’s part of the Common Application, an electronic form that Swarthmore and hundreds of small colleges and big universities accept. This was slightly more material than Swarthmore had previously requested, and it was more than many other highly selective schools demanded.

Not coincidentally, the number of applicants to the college dropped, and its acceptance rate in turn climbed, to 17 from 14 percent, making Swarthmore seem less selective.

This year, it’s asking for just one supplemental essay, of only 250 words.

Swarthmore is hardly alone in its desire to eliminate impediments to a bounty of applicants. Over the last decade, many elite colleges have adjusted their applications in ways that remove disincentives and maximize the odds that the number of students jockeying to get in remains robust — or, even better, grows larger.

In one sense, that’s a commendably egalitarian approach and a sensible attempt to be sure that no sterling candidate is missed.

But there’s often a less pure motive in play. In our increasingly status-oriented society, a school’s reputation is bolstered by its glimmer of exclusivity and by a low acceptance rate, which can even influence how U.S. News & World Report ranks it. And unless a school is shrinking the size of its student body, the only way to bring its acceptance rate down is to get its number of applicants up. So, many colleges methodically generate interest only to frustrate it. They woo supplicants for the purpose of turning them down.

It’s a cynical numbers game that further darkens the whole admissions process, a life juncture that should be exhilarating but is governed these days by dread.

It depersonalizes the process, too. Ideally, colleges should want students whose interest in them is genuine, and students should be figuring out which colleges suit them best, not applying indiscriminately to schools that have encouraged that by making it as painless (and heedless) as possible.

“Colleges are actively saddling themselves with a whole group of applicants about whom they know little and who, in turn, know little about them,” Lauren Gersick, the associate director of college counseling at the Urban School of San Francisco, told me. “You have a whole bunch of people fumbling along and freaking out.”

In a story in The Times last weekend, Ariel Kaminer observed that it’s not uncommon these days for an anxious, ambitious student to submit applications to 15 or more schools. Kaminer rightly cast this as a consequence of the overheated competition for admission to the most elite ones. Students spread their nets wider in the hopes of a good catch, and the Common Application abets this.

But so do the schools, which hawk themselves more assertively than ever. They fly in counselors like Gersick and give them elaborate sales pitches. They send their own emissaries out into the world, armed with glossy pamphlets. They buy data to identify persuadable applicants and then approach them with come-ons as breathless as any telemarketer’s pitch.

A recent email that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sent unbidden to one high school senior invited him “to apply with Candidate’s Choice status!” (The boldface letters and the exclamation point are Rensselaer’s, not mine.)

“Exclusively for select students, the Candidate’s Choice Application is unique to Rensselaer, and is available online now,” the email said, after telling its recipient that “a talented student like you deserves a college experience that is committed to developing the great minds of tomorrow.”

“The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” said Kay Rothman, director of college counseling at the NYC Lab School, in Manhattan. “There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” She told me that she routinely had to disabuse impressionable students of the notion that they’d won some prized lottery or been given some inside track.

A certain amount of outreach and promotion is necessary, even commendable.

“I don’t think colleges are guilty for marketing their product,” Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, said when I spoke with her last week. “Colleges need to explain to students what their product is about.”

And there can be other rationales for what looks like a loosening of application demands. Smith and several other similarly prominent colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT, and McCartney said that that’s not a bid for more applicants. It’s a recognition that top scores on those tests correlate with high family income and may say more about an applicant’s economic advantages — including, say, private SAT tutoring — than about academic potential.

Jim Bock, Swarthmore’s dean of admissions, said that by lightening the essay load for its current applicants, the college was less concerned about boosting its overall number of applicants than about making sure candidates of great merit didn’t miss out on Swarthmore and vice versa. He mentioned the hypothetical example of a high school student from a low-income family who works 10 or more hours a week and doesn’t have ample time to do different essays for different schools.

“Sometimes asking too much is asking too much,” he said in an interview on Friday.

But will Swarthmore’s applicants this year give quite as much thought to its suitability for them, to whether it’s the right home? I’m betting not.

When it’s a snap for a student to apply to yet one more college and each school is simply another desirable cereal on a top shelf that he or she is determined to reach, there’s inadequate thought to a tailored match, which is what the admissions process should strive for. It’s what the measure of success should be.

That was the feeling expressed by a group of counselors and consultants in a thread of Facebook comments last July about colleges doing away with supplemental essays.

One of them, Laird Durley, wrote that students insufficiently motivated to write something extra for a school “probably shouldn’t go to those schools anyway,” and he rued the extent to which simply gaining admission to a school with a fancy name — any school with a fancy name — ruled the day.

“It is harder than ever to sell ‘fit’ as opposed to ‘logo affixing,’ ” he wrote, adding that “what you will learn there” has taken a back seat to a different consideration: “Look at my brand!”

Krugman’s blog, 11/21/14

November 22, 2014

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “Me, Myself, and Abe:”

Bloomberg tells the story; it didn’t seem that dramatic to me. But who plays me in the miniseries?

A sort of related story, about bearded economists trying to set policymakers straight: Lars Svensson and the Riksbank, in the FT.

Update: For those asking how to address me in Japan, it’s “Kuruguman-sensei.”

The second post yesterday was “Inequality and Crises: Scandinavian Skepticism:”

In early December I’m supposed to talk at a Columbia conference on inequality and its consequences, and one issue I’ll have to address is the ongoing question of whether rising inequality makes countries more vulnerable to financial crises, makes it harder to recover from such crises, or in some other way degrades performance.

I’ve been wary of this line of argument, in part because it appeals so much to my general leanings: inequality worries me a lot, and it would be great if it was bad on the macro side too. So I bend over backwards not to buy into that proposition too easily.

And I continue to be skeptical, in part because there have been some pretty bad crises with lousy recoveries in countries that don’t have a lot of inequality. Consider, in particular, the post-1990 Swedish slump, brought on by runaway deregulated banks and a real estate bubble (sound familiar), taking place in a society with very low inequality. How did that compare with the US experience after 2007? Actually, they were very close:

Real GDP per capita in two crisesReal GDP per capita in two crises

 

I’ve included the LIS estimates of inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient for the relevant period; Sweden in the early 1990s had very low inequality, but nonetheless basically ran a dress rehearsal for the Great Recession and aftermath.

Just one piece of evidence. But I’m still having trouble with this one.

As usual, he ended the week with music.  The last post yesterday was “Friday Night Music: Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas:”

I have no idea who recommended this, and I normally wouldn’t have thought it was my style, but there’s no arguing with sheer unadulterated joyousness:

 

Kristof and Nocera

November 22, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “Immigration Enriches You and Me” Mr. Kristof says immigration has not diminished our country, but hugely enriched it.  Mr. Nocera considers “Uber’s Rough Ride” and says the car-service app has engineering talent and business savvy. All it lacks is some grown-ups to manage it.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

A book, “The Christian Examiner,” warns that “ill-clad and destitute” immigrants are “repulsive to our habits and our tastes.”

A former mayor of New York City cautions that they bring disease, “wretchedness and want” to America. And Harper’s Weekly despairs that these immigrants are “steeped in ignorance” and account for a disproportionate share of criminals.

Boy, those foreigners were threatening — back in the mid-1800s when those statements were made about Irish immigrants.

Once again, the United States is split by vitriolic debates about how to handle immigrants, following President Obama’s executive action to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. To me, the outrage seems driven by three myths:

Immigrants threaten our way of life.

Many Americans see foreigners moving into their towns, see signs in Spanish, and fret about changes to the traditional fabric of society.

That’s an echo of the anxiety Theodore Roosevelt felt in 1918 when, referring to German and other non-Anglo European immigrants, he declared, “Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.” That’s an echo of the “yellow peril” scares about Chinese and Japanese immigrants.

It’s true that undocumented immigrants may lower wages in some sectors, harming low-skilled native-born Americans who compete with them. One study suggests that a 10 percent increase in the size of a skill group lowers the wages of blacks in that group by 2.5 percent.

Yet just look around. Immigration has hugely enriched our country. For starters, unless you are a full-blooded American Indian, we have you.

Nations, like carpets, benefit from multiple kinds of threads, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was right: “It is a good rule of thumb to ask of a country: Are people trying to get into it or out of it?”

Immigrants today are different because they’re illegals. They’re parasites.

Look, people aren’t legal or illegal, behaviors are. If an investment banker is convicted of insider trading, he doesn’t become an illegal. So let’s refer not to “illegal immigrants” but to “undocumented immigrants.”

They have contributed $100 billion to Social Security over a decade without any intention of collecting benefits, thus shoring up the system, according to Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration.

At the state and local level, households headed by unauthorized immigrants paid another $11 billion in taxes in 2010 alone.

If these migrants are given work permits and brought into the system, they will contribute $45 billion over five years in payroll taxes to the United States economy, according to the Center for American Progress.

Parasites? No, they’re assets.

Immigration reform is an unconstitutional power grab by a dictator.

Senator Ted Cruz compared Obama’s executive action to the Catiline conspirators seeking to overthrow the Roman Republic. House Speaker John Boehner suggested that it was the action of an “emperor.”

Look, I’ve reported in many dictatorships (and been detained in some of them). And Obama is no dictator.

It’s difficult for me to judge the legality of Obama’s executive action, because I’m not an expert on legal issues like prosecutorial discretion. But neither are critics furious at Obama. We have a broken, byzantine immigration system — anybody who deals with it is staggered by the chaos — because politicians are too craven to reform it. At least Obama is attempting to modernize it.

Yes, it’s troubling that Obama previously argued he didn’t have this authority. Yes, his executive action is on a huge scale — but it is not entirely new. Obama’s action affects 45 percent of undocumented immigrants, compared to the 40 percent affected by President George H.W. Bush’s in 1990. Let’s leave the legal dispute for the experts to resolve.

I see a different hypocrisy in Obama’s action. He spoke eloquently Thursday evening about the need to treat migrants humanely — and yet this is the “deporter in chief” who has deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors. We as taxpayers have spent vast sums breaking up families and incarcerating honest men and women who just want to work. By a 2011 estimate, more than 5,000 children who are United States citizens are with foster families because their parents have been detained or deported.

We need empathy, and humility. My father, a refugee from Eastern Europe, was preparing a fraudulent marriage to an American citizen as a route to this country when he was sponsored, making fraud unnecessary. My wife’s grandfather bought papers from another Chinese villager to be able to come to the United States.

So remember: What most defines the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America is not illegality but undaunted courage and ambition for a better life. What separates their families from most of ours is simply the passage of time — and the lottery of birth.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The Uber app is a thing of beauty.

You click a button, and it immediately shows you your location. You hit another button, and it tells you how quickly an Uber car will arrive to take you where you want to go. If you want a ride during a heavy commuter time, it will charge you more — surge pricing, as they call it at Uber — but you’ll know in advance how much extra, and you’ll be given a chance to decide whether to accept or not. On the app, you can keep track of the car that is coming to get you. Sure enough, the car arrives, you hop in and off you go. The fare is charged via the app, so no cash changes hands between the driver and the customer.

Uber does what the best Internet companies do. It disrupts a business model that has existed for a very long time. In the case of Uber, that industry is the taxi business, which, almost everywhere, is highly regulated. Taxi drivers hate Uber. In many cities, they protest against it — or fight it in court. In some cities, a service like Uber’s is against the law.

But, if you live in a place like New York City, Uber is a godsend. It is nearly impossible to get a cab in Manhattan when it is raining, or during the “shift change” that starts at around 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, right when people are getting out of work and need a taxi most. There are only 14,000 or so yellow cabs in Manhattan, which is not nearly enough. Thanks to Uber, getting a ride someplace is much easier than it was before the company arrived on the scene.

What’s more, unlike many start-ups, Uber appears to be a pretty well-run company. Though it is now five years old, it is already in more than 200 cities. It dominates the rival car services like Lyft. And it has a valuation of around $17 billion.

So how does all of that — the cleverness to come up with the idea, the skill to create the company, the discipline to make it work — square with the portrait of Uber that has emerged this week? It appears to be a company run by juveniles.

On Monday, Ben Smith, the editor of Buzzfeed, published an article about a conversation he had had with Emil Michael, a top Uber executive, in which Michael suggested that Uber might do “opposition research” into the private lives of reporters, especially Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily, who has been a fierce critic of the company. Michael thought that he was speaking off the record, but even so. It’s the sort of revenge fantasy that one would expect a serious corporate executive to have outgrown.

The Buzzfeed article unleashed a torrent of other criticism about the company. Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, once told GQ magazine that the company should be called “Boober” because it made it so easy for him to get women. The company has reportedly run a dirty-tricks campaign against Lyft, including ordering rides that are then canceled, and trying to damage its ability to complete a round of financing. Uber has been rumored to track the rides of its customers, in violation of its own privacy rules. And so on. Peter Thiel, the well-known investor, has described Uber as the most “ethically challenged” company in Silicon Valley. (Thiel, it should be noted, has money in Lyft.)

Part of the problem is that, to an unusual degree, Uber has an “us-versus-them” mentality. That attitude manifests itself when the company is fighting taxi regulations or other obstacles the taxi establishment places in its path. But it also seeps into the way it views everyone it comes into contact with, including journalists.

But part of it is that there simply isn’t anybody in Silicon Valley willing to tell Uber’s principals to grow up. They have a hot company that is disrupting an outmoded industry — and, therefore, they are lionized, not matter how boorish their behavior. They are like the star football player at State U. who can get away with anything because he scores touchdowns on Saturday. Engineering talent and business savvy don’t necessarily impute maturity.

One of the smartest things Google’s founders did was hire Eric Schmidt, a technology veteran, to be the chief executive until one founder, Larry Page, felt he was ready to run the company. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, who hired Sheryl Sandberg to give the company the ballast he wasn’t ready to provide.

Companies that never grow up tend to go the way of Groupon or MySpace, two now-faded comets. As good as Uber’s app is, there are limits to how much bad publicity it can absorb before it hurts the bottom line.

At Uber, the inmates are running the asylum. That needs to change, while there’s still time.

Krugman’s blog 11/20/14

November 21, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “Structural Deformity:”

Shinzo Abe is doing the right thing, seeking to delay the next rise in consumption taxes; this is good economic policy, and also a fairly new experience for me — I met with a national leader, made a case for the right policy, and he’s actually doing it! (Of course, there were many other people making the same case.)

But there’s a lot of skepticism, which on the whole is justified: Abe is trying to accomplish something very difficult, and it’s by no means clear whether the instruments he’s deploying are sufficient.

Still, there’s one type of criticism that I really, really hate, for Japan and elsewhere — and I hate it especially because it’s one of those things that is so completely accepted by Very Serious People that they don’t even realize that they’re spouting a dubious hypothesis rather than speaking The Truth. I refer to the claim that Japan doesn’t need a demand boost, it needs structural reform (TM).

What are we talking about here? Traditionally, structural reform was offered as an answer to the problem of stagflation. If your economy starts to overheat, with accelerating inflation, despite quite high unemployment, then the argument was that this was due to labor market rigidities — basically a euphemism for a system in which it’s hard to fire people or slash their wages — and that to allow better performance you needed to make the labor market more flexible, i.e., more brutal.

OK, this argument makes a fair bit of sense, although even when the problem is stagflation it’s less ironclad than conventional wisdom would have you believe; there’s always been reason to believe that much “structural” unemployment is actually the result of hysteresis, of the lasting damage done by prolonged recessions. Still, at least this was a coherent argument.

But Japan isn’t suffering from stagflation; neither is Europe. They are, instead, suffering from low inflation or deflation, and persistent shortfalls in demand despite zero interest rates. Why, exactly, is structural reform supposed to help cure this problem?

Indeed, the kind of structural reform people have mostly talked about in the past — making labor markets more flexible, so that it’s easier to cut wages — would, if anything, deepen the slumps. Why? The paradox of flexibility: falling wages and prices increase the real burden of debt, depressing demand further.

In fact, if you think about it, there’s a definite snake-oil feel to calls for structural reform, which is touted as a universal elixir — it cures inflation, but it cures deflation too! Also back pain and bad breath.

Now, there might be some kinds of structural reform that would do Japan some good. For example, changes in land use or building height regulations that made more infill possible in Japanese cities could spur investment, and help increase demand. But the point is that the blanket call for “structural reform” as the answer is intellectually lazy, and destructive. Not only would much of what we call structural reform hurt rather than help; declaring that the problem is structural causes policymakers to take their eye off the ball, since what Japan needs right now, more than anything else, is to escape from deflation any way it can.

Brooks and Krugman

November 21, 2014

Bobo has decided to channel MoDo with a movie review, while simultaneously exhibiting his complete lack of understanding of quantum physics.  In “Love and Gravity” he burbles that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” illustrates how modern science has changed the way we look at love, philosophy and religion.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston started out this way:  “This column takes us on a long, meandering journey through a couple of wormholes to arrive at a political singularity: social engineering projects (i.e., big government) = bad, while webs of loving and meaningful relationships (i.e., local volunteerism) = good.  Mr. Brooks has expressed this point in dozens of different ways over the years. It’s as though every one of his columns is entangled with every other one, both in the past and apparently in the future. But this one has a truly ethereal bent. Never has a wistful plea for states’ rights been so cosmic.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Suffer Little Children,” says today’s immigrants are the same as our parents and grandparents were. President Obama is doing the decent thing with his immigration initiative.  Here’s Bobo:

Most Hollywood movies are about romantic love, or at least sex. But Christopher Nolan’s epic movie “Interstellar” has almost no couples, so you don’t get the charged romance you have in normal movies where a man and a woman are off saving the world.

Instead, there are the slightly different kinds of love, from generation to generation, and across time and space.

The movie starts on a farm, and you see a grandfather’s love for his grandkids and the children’s love for their father. (Mom had died sometime earlier).

The planet is hit by an environmental catastrophe, and, in that crisis, lives are torn apart. The father, played by Matthew McConaughey, goes off into space to find a replacement planet where humanity might survive. The movie is propelled by the angry love of his abandoned daughter, who loves and rages at him for leaving, decade after decade.

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It’s the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.

When the McConaughey character goes into space he leaves behind the rules of everyday earthly life and enters the realm of quantum mechanics and relativity. Gravity becomes variable. It’s different on different planets. Space bends in on itself. The astronauts fly through a wormhole, a fold in the universe connecting one piece of space with another distant piece.

Most important, time changes speed. McConaughey is off to places where time is moving much more slowly than it is on Earth, so he ends up younger than his daughter. Once in the place of an ancestor, he becomes, effectively, her descendant.

These plotlines are generally based on real science. The physicist Kip Thorne has a book out, “The Science of Interstellar,” explaining it all. But what matters in the movie is the way science and emotion (and a really loud score) mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere.

Nolan introduces the concept of quantum entanglement. That’s when two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even though they might be far apart. He then shows how people in love display some of those same features. They react in the same way at the same time to the same things.

The characters in the movie are frequently experiencing cross-cutting and mystical connections that transcend time and space. It’s like the kind of transcendent sensation you or I might have if we visited an old battlefield and felt connected by mystic chords of memory to the people who fought there long ago; or if we visited the house we grew up in and felt in deep communion with people who are now dead.

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there’s a Noah’s ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There’s an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.

But this isn’t an explicitly religious movie. “Interstellar” is important because amid all the culture wars between science and faith and science and the humanities, the movie illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms.

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, “My Bright Abyss,” “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication. …”

I suspect “Interstellar” will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite places in New York City. It’s a Civil War-vintage building that housed successive waves of immigrants, and a number of apartments have been restored to look exactly as they did in various eras, from the 1860s to the 1930s (when the building was declared unfit for occupancy). When you tour the museum, you come away with a powerful sense of immigration as a human experience, which — despite plenty of bad times, despite a cultural climate in which Jews, Italians, and others were often portrayed as racially inferior — was overwhelmingly positive.

I get especially choked up about the Baldizzi apartment from 1934. When I described its layout to my parents, both declared, “I grew up in that apartment!” And today’s immigrants are the same, in aspiration and behavior, as my grandparents were — people seeking a better life, and by and large finding it.

That’s why I enthusiastically support President Obama’s new immigration initiative. It’s a simple matter of human decency.

That’s not to say that I, or most progressives, support open borders. You can see one important reason right there in the Baldizzi apartment: the photo of F.D.R. on the wall. The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

So there are some difficult issues in immigration policy. I like to say that if you don’t feel conflicted about these issues, there’s something wrong with you. But one thing you shouldn’t feel conflicted about is the proposition that we should offer decent treatment to children who are already here — and are already Americans in every sense that matters. And that’s what Mr. Obama’s initiative is about.

Who are we talking about? First, there are more than a million young people in this country who came — yes, illegally — as children and have lived here ever since. Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here — which makes them U.S. citizens, with all the same rights you and I have — but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.

What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to bring out the iron fist — to seek out and deport young residents who weren’t born here but have never known another home, to seek out and deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.

But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel; partly because that kind of crackdown would require something approaching police-state rule; and, largely, I’m sorry to say, because Congress doesn’t want to spend the money that such a plan would require. In practice, undocumented children and the undocumented parents of legal children aren’t going anywhere.

The real question, then, is how we’re going to treat them. Will we continue our current regime of malign neglect, denying them ordinary rights and leaving them under the constant threat of deportation? Or will we treat them as the fellow Americans they already are?

The truth is that sheer self-interest says that we should do the humane thing. Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors. Condemning them to life in the shadows means that they will have less stable home lives than they should, be denied the opportunity to acquire skills and education, contribute less to the economy, and play a less positive role in society. Failure to act is just self-destructive.

But speaking for myself, I don’t care that much about the money, or even the social aspects. What really matters, or should matter, is the humanity. My parents were able to have the lives they did because America, despite all the prejudices of the time, was willing to treat them as people. Offering the same kind of treatment to today’s immigrant children is the practical course of action, but it’s also, crucially, the right thing to do. So let’s applaud the president for doing it.

Krugman’s blog, 11/19/14

November 20, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Fiscal Responsibility Claims Another Victim:”

A few more thoughts on Japan.

The bad growth news shows, pretty clearly, that the consumption tax hike was a big mistake. It also shows, by the way, how weak the market monetarist argument — which is that fiscal policy doesn’t matter, because central banks can always achieve the nominal GDP they want — really is; do you seriously want to contend that Kuroda likes what he sees, that he isn’t trying as hard as he can to boost Japan out of deflation?

Beyond that, the Japanese story is another example of the damage wrought by the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility in a depressed economy.

Leave on one side the expansionary austerity nonsense. Even among relatively sensible people, you often encounter calls for a strategy that couples loose fiscal policy, maybe even stimulus, in the short run with measures to address long-run sustainability. So, let’s spend on public works now while also addressing entitlement and/or tax reform to stabilize the budget picture over the next few decades. This sounds reasonable; in a better world it actually would be reasonable. But in this world it ends up producing very bad results.

Why? In practice, political systems (and politicians) have limited ability to focus. If you give them a mixed message about stimulus now but long-run cuts, the urgency of the stimulus part gets lost, and in fact the practical result is generally austerity even in depression.

So it was with Japan. The IMF advised Japan to go ahead with consumption tax hikes, while also endorsing monetary and fiscal stimulus. But as I’ve pointed out already, putting fiscal sustainability up near the front of a report on a country engaged in a very difficult attempt to escape deflation undermined the message, and led to a tax hike that was not effectively offset.

One way to say this is that when people come out with a message along the lines of “We must address fiscal sustainability while supporting short-term recovery,” the message that actually comes across is more like

So why blur things this way? The usual answer is still that unless you address the long-term issues, you might have a loss of confidence that undermines recovery. This is, however, unlikely — both because the fiscal consequences of a delay are small and because losing confidence would actually be a good thing in this situation.

I have to admit that the Fund’s role here somewhat surprises me. The IMF is in general making a lot of sense on macro issues these days, and is well aware of the dangers of deflation. So I had hoped it would be more sensitive to the risks of responsibility rhetoric in this case.

But anyway, another lesson from Japan — the country that has offered many useful lessons to the West, none of which our policymakers have been willing to learn.

Yesterday’s second post was “Misteaks:”

I’ve made a few. Here’s me talking with Business Insider about the big ones and what I learned.


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